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The Gradest Generation: Do Boomers Pass Or Fail?

Baby boomer schoolchildren run with their report cards in hand, circa 1955. Boomers love to rate and rank everything: best to worst, least to most, zero to 100, A to F.
Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images
Baby boomer schoolchildren run with their report cards in hand, circa 1955. Boomers love to rate and rank everything: best to worst, least to most, zero to 100, A to F.

Baby boomers — which the Census Bureau defines as the group of 78 million or so people born between 1946 and 1964 — are obsessed with grades.

They rank everything: best to worst, least to most, zero to 100, A to F. They grade movies, hotels, beef, municipal bonds and restaurants — for the quality of food, for speed of service, for cleanliness. They mark up school essays and driving tests and citizenship exams. After the release of the 1979 movie 10, starring boomer Bo Derek, men and women began appraising each other on a 1-to-10 scale. The first Zagat survey also appeared in the late 1970s, featuring diners' ratings of cafes and restaurants. Entertainment Weekly, launched in 1990 by Time Inc. (sidebar), grades movies, books, TV shows, video games and other pop culture items on an A-to-F scale.

The latest example of baby boomers' drive to assign grades: the "data-driven movement" in U.S. education. As reported recently in The Wall Street Journal, this push to quantify — relying heavily on gadgets and computations for student improvement and systemwide accountability — is an outgrowth of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind legislation.

"The high-tech strategy, which uses intensified assessments and the real-time collection of test scores, grades and other data to identify problems and speed up interventions," the Journal reports, "has just received a huge boost from President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan."

In other words, Obama (born in 1961) and Duncan (1964), like George W. Bush (1946) and many Americans of a certain age, just love grading systems. So let's take a moment to turn the tables and issue the baby boom generation its own cohort report card.

Arts & Sciences. Grade: A+

Not since the Renaissance has a generation melded art and science together in such profound and meaningful ways. Given a machine designed for computation, baby boomers held the computer up to the light and discovered its countless, fascinating artistic possibilities. With the advent of the personal computer and its awe-inspiring networking power, human scientific and artistic endeavors are forever altered. The boomers let a billion Gutenbergs bloom.

Ecology. Grade: B–

"Baby boomers are the Me Generation," says Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation, "so their own actions have been more talk about what they are doing than real action: bumper stickers, buy a Prius, but live well and consume endlessly." On the upside, Detchon says, the words of the boomers have had an interesting effect — influencing the generations after them. "Baby boomer kids are totally committed to protecting the environment and are really driving the action now."

Political Science. Grade: C

Baby boomers came to politics with a lot of attitude and, so far at least, they have not been nearly as long on achievement, says Ron Elving, NPR's Washington editor. As the first American generation to be able to vote at age 18, Elving says, baby boomers "thought they could stop wars and oust presidents. And many believed they would shift the center of gravity in American politics to a more youthful, liberal orientation." But after an initial flurry of interest in voting (particularly in the 1972 presidential election), the Me Generation meandered back into the typical patterns of U.S. voter turnout (high among the more affluent and educated, low among the rest).

"It can be said that national attitudes on social issues such as abortion, women's rights and homosexuality have liberalized over the time baby boomers have been voting," Elving says. "But in the presidential elections held since the first boomers began voting, Republicans have won seven out of 11." He points out that the most dominant political figure in the boomer era — by far — was Ronald Reagan, "a symbol of traditionalism and respect for the past."

So far, Elving says, four boomers have won the popular vote for president: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946; Al Gore, born in 1948; and Barack Obama, born in 1961. "Gore did not win the Electoral College, of course, and Clinton and Bush are probably not bound for the pantheon of Great Presidents either," Elving says. "The jury is still out on the youngest of the four, of course, the one who is barely a boomer."

Economics. Grade: D

In a recent Time magazine article, Kurt Andersen points out that baby boomers should have seen the current economic crisis coming from a mile away. "We saw what was happening for years, for decades, but we ignored it or shrugged it off, preferring to imagine that we weren't really headed over the falls," he writes. "The U.S. auto industry has been in deep trouble for more than a quarter-century. The median household income has been steadily declining this century ... but, but, but our houses and our 401(k)s were ballooning in value, right? Even smart, proudly rational people engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the new power of the Internet and its New Economy would miraculously make everything copacetic again. We all clapped our hands and believed in fairies."

Comportment. Grade: F

So, handed the postwar world by the Greatest Generation, how did baby boomers conduct themselves? To answer the question, and to determine a mark for the overall way the generation has carried itself — in the classroom, on the playground, in interactions with others — we turn to Douglas Belkin, writing in The Wall Street Journal on June 10. In his story, Belkin quotes several Class of 2009 commencement addresses by successful boomers.

Speaking at Butler University, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, 60, said his generation has been "self-absorbed, self-indulgent and all too often, just plain selfish."

Thomas Friedman, 55, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist, told students at Grinnell College in Iowa that his was "the grasshopper generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts."

And Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, 44 — addressing the graduating class at Colorado College — said that the future is in question "because our generation has not been faithful enough to our grandparents' example."

Teacher's Comments: If this report seems a bit lax and forgiving in certain areas, it's for reasons of self-esteem. The author is a baby boomer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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